Leaked messages from Tim Leunig, an economist and advisor to the Treasury, suggested that Britain does not need its farming or fishing industries and that these should not receive any special support. Leunig is reported to have said that the UK could become like Singapore, ‘which is rich without having its own agricultural sector’.
It ended up on the front page of the Mail on Sunday and the NFU condemned the remarks as ‘completely out of touch’, adding that if the UK took this route, we would be ‘outsourcing our conscience and our production’ to countries where lower food standards are the norm.
The prospect of divergence from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy represents a significant opportunity for change in the government’s approach to UK farming. Leunig’s leaked messages will not have done anything to reassure farmers and environmentalists, who have been anxious about whether the government will prioritise farming post-Brexit or sacrifice UK farming interests in future trade agreements.
Recently, countryside groups cautiously welcomed the provision in the 2019-2020 Agriculture Bill for post-Brexit subsidies on the basis of farmers’ contribution to the maintenance of ‘public goods’. The Bill raised hopes that government is not taking a purely economistic view of the farming sector but instead shifting policy towards heightened recognition of its social, cultural and environmental importance. This has, however, been offset by official refusal to rule out changes to food import laws that protect high UK standards of animal welfare from undercutting by less stringent overseas competitors.
Set against the Agriculture Bill’s explicit recognition of ‘public goods’, Leunig’s words highlight a powerful countervailing ideology within the Conservatives: the market-fundamentalist pursuit of ‘growth’ at the expense of all other considerations. I have argued elsewhere that the market-oriented and socially conservative factions within the Tories achieved a modus vivendi under Thatcher which has grown increasingly fractious in recent years. Social and cultural conservatives have become ever more aware that non-economic factors such as family, landscape, tradition and the social fabric are viewed as secondary to the pursuit of growth and are beginning to push back.
Indeed, this pushback is notably youth-led, for example in the Orthodox Conservative pressure group launched this year. Some of the group’s founding members are still in their teens and they take a strong stance on the conservation of both natural and built environments.
But UK farmers will see the presence of viewpoints such as Leunig’s close to HM Treasury as a sign that UK farming and environmental standards remain vulnerable under a Conservative government deeply conflicted about its fundamental values and priorities.